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(Goma) – The Congolese military is unlawfully detaining at least 29 children in dire conditions in northwest Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities allege that the boys, ages 15 to 17, were members of a rebel armed group, and have held them in a military prison in Angenga since apprehending them in eastern Congo in the first half of 2015.

Angenga military prison in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo, where alleged FDLR combatants are being held, including at least 29 children. © 2016 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch found during a visit to Angenga prison in December 2015, that neither the boys nor the adult men detained with them have been charged with crimes, or had access to lawyers or their families. Detainees who did not commit any criminal offense should be promptly released. Under international law, countries are obligated to recognize the special situation of children who have been recruited or used in armed conflict. Former child soldiers should be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

“Congolese authorities should immediately release the children and adults held at Angenga prison who have committed no crime and fairly charge the rest,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Children who were rebel fighters should be rehabilitated, not thrown into prison and held there indefinitely.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 detainees, including 29 children, and several prison officials at Angenga, as well as more than 40 Congolese military and government officials, United Nations officials, humanitarian workers, and others, between December 2015 and March 2016.

Detention conditions at Angenga are dismal, with inadequate food, clean water, and medical care. Children and adults remain together on the prison grounds during the day. The children had been detained in the same cells as the adults until prison officials transferred them to a separate block for sleeping at night in late February 2016.

“To get medicine, you have to wait for a response from God,” one prisoner said.

Between February and June 2015, Congolese security forces apprehended 262 men and boys of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian nationality in North Kivu and South Kivu, and in the former Katanga province of eastern Congo. Those captured were accused of being members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose leaders are believed to have taken part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The majority of FDLR fighters today are unlikely to have played any role in the genocide because they were too young. A considerable number of FDLR fighters are Congolese recruits.

The military transferred the suspected fighters to the city of Goma and flew them to the Angenga military prison, in northwestern Congo’s former Equateur province (currently Mongala province), between May and August 2015. Since December, over 60 additional suspected FDLR fighters have been transferred to Angenga. At least four of the prisoners have died from illnesses since arriving at Angenga. Two others were shot dead on February 26, 2016 outside the prison grounds. Prison authorities allege that the two men had attempted to escape.

Most of those interviewed, including 17 of the children, said they were civilians and had no affiliation with the FDLR. Others said they were former FDLR fighters who had demobilized months or years ago and had reintegrated into civilian life. Several Rwandan Hutu refugees said the authorities arrested them on the pretext that they had to register with national and international refugee agencies in Congo. Some said they were told that they needed to leave a military operational zone for their own safety, but when they arrived at the so-called “safe” village with their families, they were arrested and accused of belonging to the FDLR. Human Rights Watch could not verify individual claims.

“The local authorities came to tell us that we needed to register with the CNR [National Commission for Refugees],” a 16-year-old Rwandan Hutu boy who lived in Fizi, South Kivu province, told Human Rights Watch. “But instead they led us to their military camp. The same day, eight others fell into the same trap, thinking they needed to register.”

Another 16-year-old detainee who had been a child soldier with the FDLR said he had surrendered to the Congolese army so he could return to civilian life through the country’s demobilization program. Instead, he was arrested and sent to Angenga.

Eight other children who had been child soldiers with the FDLR said they surrendered to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) in North Kivu’s Rutshuru and Masisi territories. The children said the peacekeepers later handed them over to the Congolese army. MONUSCO asserts that seven of them had originally declared themselves to be adults and that the eighth boy did not pass through MONUSCO. MONUSCO also said that peacekeepers handed two other FDLR child soldiers – who originally declared themselves to be adults – over to the Congolese army, which then sent them to Angenga. MONUSCO said they wrongly assumed that the army would be sending former combatants to a reintegration camp instead of to prison.

Different divisions of MONUSCO, as well as non-governmental organizations, the Congolese army, and prison authorities, gave purported children significantly disparate ages, warranting a thorough review of existing policies, Human Rights Watch said. 

A senior MONUSCO official was informed of the transfers to Angenga prison, which included children, at least by October 2015 in a meeting with a humanitarian organization. The UN Group of Experts on Congo also reported on the detainees in Angenga in October.

Five months after learning about the possible detention of children, MONUSCO sent a mission to investigate. During the three-day joint mission in March 2016, MONUSCO and Congolese army officials together conducted cursory interviews with 94 alleged children, based on lists they had received from prison authorities and a humanitarian organization. The officials concluded that 22 detainees were children.

Human Rights Watch believes that the number of children is most likely much higher and that the conditions under which the interviews were conducted and the limited time spent with each child hampered a thorough inquiry.

On March 28, a senior MONUSCO official said the mission was working with the Congolese government to transfer the children out of the prison but that no date had been set for the transfer.

Some of the FDLR fighters detained at Angenga may have been involved in war crimes or other offenses. But they, like the others, have not been charged or brought to trial. They include an FDLR officer, Séraphin Nzitonda, who faces a Congolese warrant for his alleged role in a mass rape.

“UN officials have been aware that children were being held at Angenga but waited for months before acting on this information,” Sawyer said. “Congolese authorities need to work closely with MONUSCO to get the children out of the prison. Children shouldn’t be there, and given the dire conditions of the place, it seems no one should.”

For additional information and accounts from prisoners, please see below.

Congolese Military Operations Against the FDLR
The Congolese security forces have carried out arrests in eastern Congo in the context of an ongoing military operation against the FDLR, known as “Sokola 2” (“clean-up” in Lingala and Swahili). The operation began in February 2015 after most FDLR fighters did not voluntarily disarm during a six-month grace period given to the group in the second half of 2014.

UN peacekeepers were closely involved in planning the military campaign and expected to join the operations, but they withdrew their support following the last-minute appointments of Gen. Bruno Mandevu as the army’s commander for the operation and Gen. Sikabwe Fall as the army’s regional commander for North Kivu province. The alleged involvement of Mandevu and Fall in past human rights violations prevented UN peacekeepers from providing any support to an operation in which they were involved, under the UN’s Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP), MONUSCO officials said at the time. On January 28, 2016, the government and MONUSCO signed an agreement on the resumption of joint operations, but these have yet to begin.

On March 23, the Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond Tshibanda claimed that Sokola 2 operations had reduced the FDLR’s troop strength from 1,200 combatants to 108. This may be a significant exaggeration, given that those detained in Angenga are included in the calculations, since many of them may be civilians.

Angenga Detainees
In early December 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 of 262 alleged FDLR fighters detained at Angenga at that time. Twenty-five, including 17 children, said that they were civilians with no affiliation to the FDLR. Sixteen others, including 10 children, said they were former FDLR fighters who had demobilized months or years ago and had reintegrated into civilian life. Four prisoners, including two children, admitted that they were active FDLR fighters at the time of arrest. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify individual claims.

Since Human Rights Watch was able to interview only a portion of Angenga prisoners in the group of alleged FDLR combatants, it is believed that the number of detained children is most likely much higher.

MONUSCO confirmed Human Rights Watch’s findings that the Congolese army took at least nine FDLR combatants from a regroupment site for former FDLR combatants in Walungu, South Kivu province, which MONUSCO helps manage, and sent one of them to Angenga. The fighters had surrendered to MONUSCO during the six-month grace period given to FDLR combatants in 2014. According to MONUSCO, the Congolese army also removed FDLR combatants from the regroupment site in Kanyabayonga, North Kivu province.

MONUSCO officials involved in the management of the two sites told Human Rights Watch that they did not participate in the removals and did not know on what grounds the army made its decision on whom to remove. A senior MONUSCO official told Human Rights Watch on March 30, 2016 that the process “went badly” and that the mission later “sensitized the government not to do it again.” 

In August 2015, 86 alleged FDLR combatants imprisoned in Angenga told the UN Group of Experts on Congo that they were civilians.

The UN Group of Experts reported in October that Col. Ringo Heshima, commander of the Congolese army’s 3303 Regiment at the time, had “invited all the Rwandan refugees from the area to a meeting in Kilembwe [South Kivu], at which point he had arrested them and sent them to Bukavu as FDLR ‘combatants.’” These civilians were later transferred to Angenga. Three detainees told Human Rights Watch that Colonel Heshima was involved in their arrest.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch on March 17, Colonel Heshima denied that children and civilians were among those arrested and transferred to Angenga. He asserted they were all FDLR fighters who had been “captured on the front lines.”

Rwandan Refugees in Congo
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which more than half a million people were killed as Hutu extremists set out to destroy the Tutsi minority, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, most of them Hutu, fled en masse from the advancing troops of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the Tutsi-led rebel group which ended the genocide and is currently the ruling party in Rwanda.

Among the refugees who crossed into Congo were people who had participated in the genocide. They established control over some of the refugee camps, where they prepared to attack Rwanda and continued to propagate ethnic hatred of Tutsi.

In October 1996 – in what later became known as Congo's first war – the new Rwandan army formed by the RPF invaded Congo to destroy the refugee camps, killing tens of thousands of people. Refugees who did not return to Rwanda, including large numbers who had not been involved in the genocide, fled deep into the forests in Congo.

Today, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees live in precarious conditions in eastern Congo with an uncertain legal status. Over the years, the Congolese army and Congolese armed groups have conflated the refugees with FDLR fighters and attacked them, even though many are not associated with the FDLR. In 2012, Raia Mutomboki fighters carried out some of the deadliest recent attacks on makeshift camps that were home to Rwandan Hutu refugees and dependents of FDLR combatants. Human Rights Watch confirmed the killings of at least 140 FDLR dependents and other Rwandan Hutu refugees during 14 attacks in Walikale territory. The majority of the victims were women and children, many of them hacked to death by machete or burned alive in their homes.

International Legal Standards and the UN
International law applicable in Congo prohibits non-state armed groups such as the FDLR from using children under 18 in their forces. Those taken into custody are due special protections. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Congo is a party, requires governments to take “all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict,” and to take “all appropriate measures” to promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of children who have been victims of armed conflicts.

The Convention’s Optional Protocol on children in armed conflict, which Congo ratified in 2001, provides that governments “shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons within their jurisdiction recruited or used in hostilities contrary to the present Protocol are demobilized or otherwise released from service,” and “shall, when necessary, accord to such persons all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.”

MONUSCO’s Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration, and Resettlement (DDRRR) unit is charged with repatriating foreign nationals who surrender from the FDLR and other foreign armed groups active in eastern Congo, in collaboration with Congolese authorities and in accordance with international law. MONUSCO’s child protection officers routinely screen combatants from armed groups who surrender to peacekeepers or to the Congolese government, or whom Congolese officials arrest, to ensure that children are separated and properly protected.

Based on Human Rights Watch’s interviews with MONUSCO officials, it appears that the internationally recognized “presumption of minority” standard – in which an individual’s claim to be a child is recognized until proven otherwise – was not fully applied in Angenga. One senior official raised concerns about potential problems with the Congolese government if they freed people who turned out to be adults after all, and because of the logistical challenges of separating and reuniting additional detainees with their families.

Accounts From Children Detained at Angenga
A 15-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch:

I am Rwandan. I was born in Mwenga [South Kivu, Congo]. I was never with the FDLR. One day, I was on my way to the market to buy some things. On the way I ran into Congolese army soldiers, and they arrested me. It was April 7, 2015. They transferred me to Bukavu, then Goma and finally to Angenga. I don’t know what they want from me. Maybe they just want to say they arrested FDLR. I don’t know.

A Congolese Hutu boy, 16, said he was arrested in Nyamilima, Rutshuru territory, North Kivu in the first half of 2015:

During the M23 war [2012-2013], we fled to the Nyakivale [refugee] camp in Uganda. I later returned with my mother. One day, when we were in the fields, I climbed up a tree to look for a mango. My mother kept walking and left me behind in the field. When I climbed back down, [Congolese] soldiers grabbed me and accused me of being with the FDLR. After one week in the prison in Nyamilima, I was transferred to Goma and then here [Angenga].

A 16-year-old boy said that he managed to escape the FDLR to turn himself over to the Congolese army in Masisi territory, North Kivu, in early 2015. He was later transferred to Angenga prison:

The FDLR took me by force. I managed to flee two months after they took me. I handed myself over to the Congolese army in Kitchanga so the FDLR wouldn’t find me. They put me in prison and now I am in Angenga.

Another 16-year-old boy said he had left the FDLR voluntarily to return to civilian life before he was arrested by the Congolese army in Walikale territory, North Kivu, in July 2015:

I was with the FDLR in Ihula before, but I left the group a while ago. I returned to my home, where I did small business activities. One day, I was at the market when the Congolese army came to arrest me, and now I am here [in Angenga].

A 17-year-old said that the Congolese army arrested him after he had helped them carry goods to Burungu, Masisi territory, North Kivu, in the first half of 2015:

The Congolese army asked me to help them transport goods to Burungu. When we arrived there, they didn’t let me go. They brought me instead to Goma, accusing me of being an FDLR fighter.

A Rwandan boy, 17, said that authorities arrested him after he crossed into Goma from Rwanda:

I live in Gisenyi [in Rwanda]. One day, I crossed into Goma to look for work to make some money as a mason. When I tried to go back [to Gisenyi], [Congolese] immigration officers arrested me at the small border crossing [in Goma]. I showed them my identity card and small entry permit, but they didn’t release me.

A 16-year-old said that the Congolese army tricked him into believing that he had to register with the Congolese refugee agency in Fizi territory, South Kivu, in early 2015:

I used to live in Kilembwe village. The military told us we had to register with CNR [Congolese refugee agency]. The military didn’t bring us there though, but brought us to their military camp instead.

Accounts From Rwandan Hutu Refugees Detained at Angenga
A Rwandan Hutu, 54, told Human Rights Watch that authorities tricked him into believing he had to help register Rwandan Hutu refugees in Fizi territory, South Kivu, in June 2015:

I am a civilian. I was never with the FDLR. It’s true that I am Rwandan, and I came to Congo in 1994. I was the unofficial representative of Rwandan refugees in my area, in charge of welcoming refugees and helping them make sure their paperwork was in order. I worked with the CNR and UNHCR [Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] to register refugees. I am well known in the village as a refugee and not as an FDLR member.

On June 15, 2015, [Congolese] soldiers came to me, saying that they were there to facilitate the registration of Rwandan refugees. They asked my family and me to follow them and so we did. To our great surprise, they then put us all in prison in Kilembwe. Later, they transferred us to Baraka, and then to Bukavu. From there, I was transferred to Goma and finally here to Angenga. I don’t know what happened to my wife and children. But what crime did we commit? Just being Rwandans?

A 43-year-old Hutu man from Fizi territory, South Kivu, described his arrest:

I was arrested on February 20, 2015, after the authorities tricked me. They told me I needed to register with CNR. But instead of bringing me to the CNR office, they brought me to their military camp. It was in the village of Kitumba in Minembwe. The same day, at least another six people were arrested through this same trick.

A Hutu man from Uvira, South Kivu, said that he had been with the FDLR but had abandoned the group three years before his arrest:

I am Rwandan and I was with the FDLR for a while. When I realized that it wasn’t worth all the pain, I left to live first in Kilungutwe in Mwenga, and then in Kilembwe, where I stayed for three years with my wife and children.

Authorities told us that we needed to go to Bukavu to get the right papers from the refugee agency. They said we would later return to the village. I didn’t find anything unusual with all of this. And so I took my wife and my children. The army drove us for free to Bukavu, where we planned to register with CNR and UNHCR. But when we arrived in Bukavu, they brought us to the Sokola 2 military camp and we became prisoners without us even knowing what was happening. There were many people, including other families that were tricked like we were. When they brought us here [Angenga], my family stayed in Bukavu. I have not heard from my family since. Were they forcibly sent back to Rwanda? I have no idea. I don’t know whether they’re dead or alive.

Accounts From Other Alleged FDLR Combatants Detained at Angenga
A Hutu farmer and former combatant who said he had left the FDLR in 2013 said:

One day, [Congolese] soldiers intimidated me, ordering me to leave the area under the pretext that military operations were under way. And so I left and went to Minembwe [Fizi, South Kivu]. There, [the Congolese army commander] Colonel Heshima called me to come see him. I tried twice but he wasn’t there. The third time I met him. He didn’t tell me anything except that I needed to get into his truck and that we’d talk later. I never talked to him; he brought me instead to prison. I wasn’t the only one. There were several of us but those who had money paid to be released. Some gave goats or a cow or paid $100. I didn’t see why I should pay because I didn’t do anything.

Then on April 4, we were brought to Fizi where we spent two nights. Other prisoners from Kilembwe joined us. We boarded another vehicle toward Bukavu, where we arrived on April 7. The same night, we got on a boat and arrived the next morning in Goma. They took us to the T2 and I spent about a month there. On May 7, I was taken to the Angenga prison. To tell you the truth, all of those who were arrested in Fizi aren’t with the FDLR. The [FDLR] combatants are in the forest and we are with the population in the village. My neighbors can testify that we were taken in the village because we are Rwandans and not because we are FDLR.

A 39-year-old man said that he surrendered to MONUSCO in Walungu, South Kivu, in January 2015 and was transferred to the Congolese army in June:

I left Rwanda in 1994. It’s true that I worked with the FDLR for a while. But I surrendered with my weapon in January 2015 in the MONUSCO camp in Walungu in South Kivu. We were 72 people on that day who surrendered with their weapons. They registered me in the camp.

On June 26, the Pakistani soldiers [of MONUSCO] opened the gate and let Congolese army soldiers into the camp. They talked for a long time but we didn’t understand any of it. After a while, the soldiers took nine of us. They led us out of the camp saying we need to return to Rwanda. My wife, five children and my mother stayed behind. They then brought us to a military prison in Bukavu, where we stayed for nearly one month. They asked us who among us wants to go to Rwanda. I refused because I couldn’t leave my family here. I was then transferred to Goma, where I stayed for almost three weeks. On August 22, 2015 we arrived here in Angenga.

A 34-old-year man said that he was arrested while looking for food after his baby was born in northern Masisi territory, North Kivu:

I lived in the Nyange internally displaced persons camp. I wasn’t part of the war. I live with civilians in a camp. When my wife gave birth to our first child, I left for the market to look for some food. On the way, a soldier told me that his commander had a question for me. So, I walked to his office. When I arrived there, they arrested me. I haven’t seen my wife or my child since. If you say that I was in the forest [with FDLR] or at the front line, it’s a baseless lie. I am well-known in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camp. You can inquire for yourself. I am in prison but until now I don’t know what I have done wrong.

Nzitonda Case
Congolese army soldiers arrested an FDLR officer, Séraphin Nzitonda (known as “Lionso”), 40, in Mweso, Masisi territory, on February 26, 2015, and later transferred him to Angenga. Four years earlier, on January 6, 2011, Congolese authorities had issued an arrest warrant for him for crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the mass rape of at least 387 civilians between July 30 and August 2, 2010 in eastern Walikale territory. More than one year after his arrest, Congolese authorities have not charged him in court let alone brought him to trial, and his arrest was not known by Congolese military justice officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Conditions at Angenga Prison
Angenga was built in in the early 1950s during the Belgian colonial period for prisoners serving long sentences, and it was later used as a prison for military personnel and political prisoners during the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, from 1965 to 1997. It was closed in 1997, but reopened in March 2015. In addition to the former FDLR fighters and others accused of links to the FDLR, several hundred prisoners from across the country are incarcerated there. Human Rights Watch interviewed seven prisoners at Angenga who were not part of the group of alleged FDLR fighters.

The approximately 750 prisoners at Angenga suffer from a severe shortage of water and food, and the prison hospital ward has almost no supplies or medicine to treat the sick.

“The prison clinic doesn’t deserve to be called a clinic,” a prison official told Human Rights Watch. “There’s no medicine. It’s a catastrophe. We have no paracetamol for diarrhea or malaria. We should evacuate those who are really sick to Lisala [the closest town], but we can’t afford this. The conditions are inhumane.”

One prisoner said:

To get medicine, you have to wait for a response from God. Some of us have tuberculosis but they’re given medicine that’s already expired. Others have HIV but there aren’t any antiretroviral drugs. Don’t you see that we are destined to die here one after another?

Another prisoner said:

When you’re sick, you’re taken care of in a clinic that doesn’t have any appropriate medicine. Personally, I have a bad urinary tract infection, and I’m suffering a lot because my transfer to the hospital in Lisala keeps getting delayed. I know two prisoners who died because they weren’t transferred to the hospital in time.

One prisoner described the sparse water rations:

Like you can see for yourself, we live in inhumane conditions here. The biggest problem is the lack of water. We don’t have much and we sometimes go without a bath for one week. It’s great when it rains because then we have water to wash our clothes. For drinking, they give us a bucket of 15 liters for about 50 people. And this water has not been treated. For food, we only receive a small amount per day. We get some beans, sometimes with rice, manioc or foufou.

Another prisoner described the sanitation and hygiene conditions:

Sometimes we don’t even wash ourselves for a week. And on top of that we don’t have toilets. And the stench is unbearable. In cell block one, for example, there are more than 300 prisoners but only six small holes. Imagine that!

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